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Volatile organic compounds

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The air flow present in homes or in offices is a superhighway for chemical compounds that create odors , smoke and gases. This promotes the propagation of chemicals called volatile organic compounds ( VOCs) ; the best known are oil products such as fuels , formaldehyde and acetone. They may be generated from other sources such as:

  • Aerosols ;
  • The alcohol stove ;
  • The air fresheners ;
  • The lumber ;
  • The wax and waxing
  • Construction adhesive;
  • Electrical components ;
  • Cosmetic products ;
  • Household cleaners ;
  • Strippers ;
  • Stain removers ;
  • Detergents ;
  • The diluents ;
  • Hairspray ;
  • Cigarette smoke ;
  • Insecticides ;
  • Linoleum;
  • Some building materials ;
  • Furniture ;
  • The carpets ;
  • Insulating foams ;
  • Cleaners ;
  • The paintings;
  • Cleaning products ;
  • The nail varnishes ;
  • The floor polish ;

As their name indicates , volatile organic compounds (VOC) are defined by three main points: they are a combination of two or more elements ; they are of biological origin because they contain carbon and hydrogen ; and finally they are considered as volatile as they evaporate at room temperature and can easily vaporize .

The carbon and hydrogen used in the manufacture of many chemical products ; this ensures that VOCs are present in a wide range of these products and that there are several possible sources of VOC emissions in indoor air ( on this, see above list).

Many VOCs are known to be toxic , and some, such as benzene and formaldehyde, have been identified as carcinogens . Even if one has not identified adverse health effects for other VOCs , it still remains uncertain as to the risk that could lead to a long exposure to such chemicals at levels commonly present in homes. Although there is agreement on the fact that most VOCs have few health risks , vigilance is still in order, since the effects of exposure to VOCs differ from one context to another ; it depends on the rate and duration of exposure, and , especially , the sensitivity of each person to different chemicals . As a precaution , it is recommended to reduce, if possible, the VOC content .

It is the organic nature of VOCs , since they are based on hydrocarbons , which makes the volatile : that is to say they evaporate and they evaporate at room temperature. One can think , for example , gasoline , a petroleum product from a variety of organic compounds, which reacts as such. One can also think of the adhesives made ​​from boiled animal parts ( hydrocarbons) are used in the production of wood products, vinyl floor coverings , etc., and which vaporize or produce gaseous emanations ( clearance gas ) , even after hardened.

This makes understanding the activity of VOC is more difficult that does not distinguish the evaporation of vaporization : both being considered change from a solid to a liquid or gaseous state or condition liquid vapor . To be fair, it is necessary to refer only to the concept of vaporizing in the case of material from non- transformed by the human biological organism . Other biological organisms such as molds that broadcast their spores in ambient air , feces mites , dust, have the ability to vaporize harmful proteins that affect the mucosa of the lungs. They play an important role in indoor environmental pollution emissions with sometimes benign , but often dangerous to health , and , in the short or long term.


A large proportion of VOCs found in common household products such as: furniture, mattresses, cabinets, building materials, wallpaper, cleaning products and glue. These products can give off gas in the indoor air; this is called "gassing". One must also take into account the fact that construction materials such as insulation containing asbestos and paint that contains lead, can release dust and harmful particles when handled, especially during renovations requiring their removal or withdrawal. Again, AES Environment advise you to inquire about the health risks that can cause some household goods and some construction materials, and precautions before engaging in work that could endanger the health of residents or your family. Moreover, in case of exposure, young children are most at risk because their respiratory system is not fully developed. We must therefore protect more and be alert to the onset of symptoms related to the VOC exposure: irritation of the eyes, respiratory and digestive tracts, headaches, feelings of intoxication, dizziness and nausea.


The toxicity of tobacco is widely recognized; there were, in its composition, about 4,000 substances, many of which can cause cancer, and, as in smokers than in nonsmokers. Indeed, we know that secondhand smoke is to say what is exhaled by the smoker or what emerges from the lit end of a cigarette is harmful VOCs which represents a significant risk to health all people who are exposed to it. Damage from a secondhand smoke exposure can be significant: increased symptoms of respiratory irritation, increased frequency of episodes and severity of asthma and even cancer development. We must add that young children are more fragile with respect to secondhand smoke, and are more likely to develop respiratory infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis and bronchiolitis; one even reported new cases of asthma in children who are exposed before the age of one year. With the scientific knowledge that we have today about the dangers of smoking, it is strongly recommended never to smoke inside when it is not forbidden, either at home or at work. It should be noted that no house and no office are not immune to the generation and circulation of VOCs.


Formaldehyde is a colorless gas commonly used worldwide as a disinfectant and preservative. It is also used in many household products and in certain building materials . When present at high levels in the air, it gives off a pungent smell . Formaldehyde is found at low levels in all houses and all buildings. The main sources of formaldehyde in the indoor air are the following:

  • tobacco smoke ;
  • the smoke of wood stoves and fireplaces ;
  • vehicles fumes inside houses attached garages ;
  • latex paints , glues , adhesives, varnishes and lacquers;
  • wallpaper, cardboard and paper products;
  • dishwashing detergents, fabric softeners , shoe polish and carpet cleaners ;
  • some cosmetics ( nail varnishes and hardeners ) ;
  • permanent press fabrics (for curtains for linen and clothing) ;
  • furniture, cabinets and building materials made ​​of particle board, of medium density fibreboard , hardwood , panels against plywood and certain molded plastics.

Formaldehyde is an irritant. A short-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can cause burning sensations in the eyes , nose and throat . The long-term exposure to moderate levels of formaldehyde may be associated with respiratory problems and allergies , especially in children.

In the case of industrial workers who are regularly exposed to high levels , formaldehyde can cause cancer of the nasal cavity . The level of formaldehyde in Canadian homes are well below levels that could cause cancer.


Another major source of indoor air pollution is the use of combustion appliances such as furnaces , fireplaces and stoves. Carbon monoxide (CO ) from the operation of a car in a garage or a faulty heater, is a formidable toxic gas because of its asphyxiating . It is highly recommended to install CO detectors in homes with fuel-burning appliances . Nitrogen dioxide ( NO2) , which may be present inside the body after use of gas for cooking food or kerosene for heating, is a strong lung irritant . The best prevention is to properly maintain the equipment on an annual basis and avoid using combustion appliances in enclosed spaces , unventilated or poorly ventilated same .


Carbon dioxide, a colorless and odorless gas is a normal constituent of the atmosphere that is found at concentrations ranging from 350 to 400 ppm. Inside the body, carbon dioxide is mainly produced by the occupants themselves. Office occupants exhale carbon dioxide at a rate of about 0.3 liter / min when performing light tasks. The concentration of CO2 in the air offices may, under certain conditions, be a good indicator of the effectiveness of the ventilation system; it is expressed in parts per million (ppm). To obtain an acceptable indoor air quality, it is recommended that CO2 levels do not exceed 700 ppm higher than the levels observed outdoors. CO2 is not toxic at high concentrations. The maximum workplace exposure retained in most countries is 1000 ppm; this concentration is the maximum value allowed for the design of air conditioning systems for indoor environments. Generally, concentrations that are found in office towers are of the order of 800 to 1000 ppm.

ASHRAE 62-1989 ( Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality ) recommends a minimum ventilation rate of 10 liters / second per person to ensure IAQ in offices ; this rate can be achieved by ventilation method. ASHRAE also provides another method : IAQ procedure, it is the use of acceptable concentrations of certain contaminants in order to achieve good IAQ . In the case of a current occupancy and normal operations , the minimum outside ventilation rate of 10 liters / second per person give a concentration of carbon dioxide of 850 ppm in a stable state of the occupied space .

A pronounced malaise resulting in a net difficulty breathing and appears when you reach a concentration of 10 000ppm CO2 ; Note that this state of discomfort varies greatly from person to person

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